Michael Collins: How did the eyes evolve?

Mar. 10, 2014 @ 08:39 AM

As you are reading this column with your eyes, pause for a moment and think about what a wonder they are.

The human eye is an amazing machine. Don’t back up, I did say machine. Except for the frequent cases of myopia, resulting in us four eyed beauties spread all over the globe, it is nearly perfect. So perfect, in fact that man has recognized its superb utility and has attempted to mimic it time and time again in his own creations.

Just take a look at cameras, telescopes, microscopes etc. The cell phone in your pocket has a lens that is a cheap imitation of what you are perusing this publication with at this very moment.  

I often wonder what the first eye must have been like. I mean waaaaay back.

How would the eye have evolved?  The first single-celled organism clearly had no eyes.  Lack of sight did not impair its ability to procreate, thrive and survive in such a harsh environment.  So clearly, in evolutionary theory, the eye would have developed somewhere along the evolutionary chain.  Charles Darwin would say that it was a favorable trait that helped the fittest survive.  Certainly if there were two predators and one had eyes and the other did not, one is significantly more “fit” than another. 

I wonder if somewhere along the way ... something ... recognized a need for vision, maybe even something self-aware thought to itself, “All this feeling my way around really stinks — I need some eyes!”

How could it even fathom what sight was?  Even more so, if it could fathom sight, how could the eye become reality?  It would have no ability to will its own eyes into existence. If the eye developed in the evolutionary chain, would it imply intelligent intervention by an objective, third party capable of making such an intervention in development?

Shew! This is the part where my head starts spinning.

Darwin’s theory would say the eye evolved by accident — a fortunate, genetic mutation which gave the mutant an advantage over all other life forms swimming in the soup.  Lucky son of a gun!  If that is the case, Darwin’s theory makes us all the descendants of a bunch of lucky mutants.  Guess I must have quite a pedigree. 

In fact, that is exactly what Darwin implies with his theory.  He who has the best mutation wins!  Holy cow, this evolution stuff is miraculous — oops can’t use that word with scientific theory anymore.  You used to be able to. Not long before the Scientific Revolution — back when the scientists (often priests yearning to understand their God’s reality) prayed daily before beginning their research. Some still do today.  Francis Collins, the scientist that headed the Human Genome project, is a devout Christian and refers to the human genome as, “The Language of God.”  I bet he still prays before research. For the record, Francis Collins and I are of no relation. Well, perhaps we might be but it would date back to a single-celled organism floating around in the primordial goo. Hardly worth him including me in the will.

Back to the point though. Where I struggle with understanding is trying to fathom how the eye can be a mutation?  It is so perfectly designed to accomplish exactly what it does.  How did the lens coincidentally evolve at the same time as the pupil?  Further, how did the pupil know to evolve so that it could expand or contract based on the amount of light exposure?  How did the retina, cornea and vitreous gel know that it would also need a direct nerve connection to the brain stem to translate the images it was capturing?  And how the heck did it all know that the image would be upside down and the brain would have to translate that image to process it right side up?

The eye just baffles me. And it is not even the hard one! What about coagulation? How many creatures bled to death before coagulation came about and how in the heck did coagulation get passed along if all these creatures bled out and died before anything could evolve a clotting agent so that it could be passed on along from generation to generation to prevent them from bleeding out as well? 

In the end, I just give up. I have no idea where, in that long line, the eye as we know it came about.

I suspect the first creature with an evolved eye crawled out of the primordial soup only to open its pupil-less eye and have the retina immediately singed beyond repair and thereby became blind. I wonder, did this poor creature think for a brief moment, “Whoa!  I thought I saw something!” Or did it in fact realize its cornea and lens had been singed beyond repair and think to itself, “Dang it!  I should have thought of a pupil.  I guess we’ll need to add it to my offspring.”  

Alas, poor creature, I am remiss to inform you that you don’t get to play a part in the design of the next prototype. You are but a passenger on this roller coaster ride, and if the eye that you so carelessly opened wide does evolve into something workable, your knowledge and experience will have played no part in its success.

Just be thankful your fins now possess mutated fingers and toes so you can at least feel your way around. Stay away from pointy objects though. You are blind after all.